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The Craft of Doll Making

The Craft of Doll MakingIntroduction to Doll Making

A renewed interest in antique porcelain dolls has encouraged many people to start making these delicate play things. Doll artists now make original moulds to bring the craft up to date, while kits for making replica antique dolls are available for less experienced craftspeople.

Origins of Porcelain Dolls

Few porcelain dolls are made solely of china. The head must be china and the lower arms and legs may also be of china but the torso is usually a fabric shell stuffed with a soft filling. The dolls are therefore prized for their heads. The finest examples are fascinating, with delicate features cast and painted with consummate skill, often giving the dolls a lively, eerily human quality.  

Porcelain dolls originated in Germany in the late 18th century. These early dolls depicted and were mainly intended for adults. Only later, in the 19th century, did china dolls come to represent babies or small children and become playthings. These dolls grew in popularity in Europe between 1840 and 1920. German makers continued to dominate the craft, but French and British manufacturers also made notable contributions to the craft.  

Those early dolls are now highly prized by antique collectors and the interest stimulated by this has played a large part in encouraging a revival in the craft. 

Tools and equipment

A kiln is the most expensive piece of equipment needed for the process. Small kilns which can be run off the mains are available for use in the home and are quite adequate for firing the doll pieces.  
Modelling clay
and plaster are needed to make the mould unless a ready made one is being used.  
Porcelain comes in three different types: bisque (unglazed porcelain with a matt surface), parian (fine white bisque), and china (glazed porcelain). Doll makers use porcelain slip – a pourable liquid containing clay particles held in suspension – which can be made or bought. Most prefer bisque as it can be painted after firing.  
Under glaze ceramic paints are used to paint the skin and add details such as eyes and lips.  
Manufactured glass eyes, teeth and wigs can be used in place of painted details.

Basic techniques of Porcelain Doll Making

The mould – Doll artists use modelling clay to work out the shape of the head; they then take a plaster cast of this for the mould. The mould is made in two halves which are strapped tightly together when a cast is taken. This allows the cast piece to be removed with ease once the porcelain is dry enough to move.  

For a portrait, the models head is photographed and measured in detail to enable the doll maker to construct an accurate mould, scaled down to the required size.  

Taking a cast – The porcelain slip is poured into the mould in a steady stream until the inside is evenly coated. Any excess is poured off. The mould is left to allow the cast to dry, which usually takes about an hour, depending on slip used.  

The porcelain cast is called ‘greenware’ (unfired clay) and should have a leathery texture. Holes are now cut for the eyes and mouth but detailed final shaping of these takes place when the greenware is dry. The greenware is left to dry in a well ventilated room.  

Firing and sanding – The next stage is the bisque firing when the porcelain becomes fully hardened. This first firing must be done slowly to prevent damage to the porcelain. The fumes given off during firing are toxic so the kiln area must be well ventilated.  

Once cooled, the pieces are cleaned and sanded. This can be done before firing, but it is better done after.  

Painting the head – Painting brings the doll’s head to life. It is a skilful process requiring a deft hand and can involve several stages to complete the face.  
If a flesh-tinted porcelain slip has not been used, the whole head may be coloured with a flesh tone which is brushed on. It is then fired to set the paint. Other details are added and the head is again fired. Painting lashes and brows is particularly hard, and painted eyes have to be just right to avoid a stark and unnatural look that can ruin the character of a face.  

Glazing, if required is done after the painting has been finished and fired. The glaze is set by firing the pieces in the kiln again.  

All that remains is for any finishing fixtures such as eyes, teeth and hair to be put in place. Eyes are held in place with wax or adhesive; teeth are positioned with plaster of Paris. Sometimes the hair is painted on, but more often wigs are used to complete the head.  

Once the head, limbs and torso (whether porcelain or fabric) have been made and painted, they are joined up and the figure is ready to be costumed.  

The clothes can be designed specially or patterns can be bought. Boaters, bonnets, boots and anything else the well dressed doll might require are also available from specialist retailers. 

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